Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tunes: Learning to Polka

A few weeks back my teacher said I should learn a new tune, but that I should pick something other than a jig since my current repertoire leans heavily towards jigs. After considering a number of reels, I chose John Ryan's Polka, mostly because I didn't really get polkas.

I have a hard time recognizing polkas, much less playing them right. The 2/4 time signature sounds a lot like the 2/2 of a reel, especially if they're not articulated carefully. But my teacher pointed out an important difference between the reel and the Irish polka. The polka, he said, is the only type of tune in Irish music which has a backbeat, although I'm pretty sure he meant an emphasis on the half-beats rather than the second (last) beat in each measure. He told me that he played polkas "incorrectly" for ten years before someone told him about this.

Armed with this information I was able to go back and listen to track 5 of Mary Bergin's Feadóga Stáin 2 a bit more carefully and I can get a sense of what he means.

But it will be a good while before I can play polkas like she can.

Have a suggestion for a great polka recording? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

WWW: Remembering a Kwela Master

Kwela is a genre of music created in South Africa in the 1950s, and characterized by an upbeat, jazzy pennywhistle lead. The name is a Zulu word for "get up," and the police vans which patrolled South African townships during the Apartheid era were slangily known as "kwela kwela vans." It seems that folks who ran illegal gambling games on the streets of the townships sometimes used kwela bands as cover or as lookouts:

Dice rattle, streetwise young voices call bets and argue, the dice stop rolling, cheers and groans as the coins are scooped up again.

Feet come running and an urgent voice calls: "E Bops, kom maak gou -- hier kom die kwela kwela van!" ("Hurry up, here comes the police van"). "Tom Hark" has been watching for police at the corner.

Dice and cash vanish, out come pennywhistles and guitars, and the gambling school becomes a kwela band (the music named after the police van) and they swing into the irresistible tune of Tom Hark. The police rumble past in their van.

Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole was "discovered" by a record company scout playing his pennywhistle in the street with his brother. They recorded a record the same day which eventually sold around five million copies. Six months later he was sold into slavery by the South African police. He was beaten by the farmer who had purchased him, which permanently lowered his voice, resulting in his nickname in later life. He escaped slavery after the intervention of an activist lawyer, resumed music performance, went on to tour Europe and Africa.

The kwela scene in South Africa essentially died when Spokes Mashiyane, one of its chief exponents, took up the saxophone. The kwela sound fused with Marabi, another indigenous South African music, forming mbaqanga. But Big Voice Jack continued to play Kwela, and made a comeback of sorts in the 1990s when South African-born Dave Matthews heard him play at the Bassline Jazz club:

However, it was at The Bassline Jazz Club in Melville Johannesburg that Jack's finest moment was set in motion. Jack was playing at the club and Dave Mathews, guitarist, songwriter and singer with the internationally acclaimed Dave Mathews Band, was in the audience. Dave's saxophonist had asked him to pick up a few pennywhistles while he was visiting South Africa and Dave approached Big Voice Jack after the gig to ask him where he could find them. Big Voice Jack decided to rather give his own whistles to Mathews. "I thought that I would never play in a big stadium in America, so I wanted my whistles to be there," says Jack. "So I gave them to him."

Big Voice Jack's generosity was repaid when the Dave Mathews Band invited him to come over to the States and play two gigs with them at the Foxboro stadium in Boston and the Giants stadium in New York. This invitation from arguably the hottest rock act in America at the moment is a fitting tribute to the lasting contribution that Big Voice Jack has made to South African music, and went down a treat. Jack's gigs with the Dave Mathews Band were recorded in a documentary by South African filmmaker Johnathan Dorfman called "Back to Alexandra." The film shows Jack on stage before an 88,000 strong crowd, jiving and jamming with the band like a man half his age. He went down so well that the band even asked him to play one of his own tunes, "Back to Alexandra," a song in which Jack gives vent to his lifelong hatred for guns.

Big Voice Jack died of throat cancer in 2003. You can buy his CDs through South Africa's One World or Amazon or Stern's Music. The latter has M3U audio samples!

Thanks especially to Keith Addison for publishing much of the linked material.

Update: Here's an MP3 of Tom Hark.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

WWW: Free Irish Music Download Blog

This site has been around for some time, but it's new to me. It links MP3s posted by various bands — mostly smaller groups — and includes a short blurb about each band and information on where to buy their CDs if you like what you hear. All linked downloads are legal.

For some reason they don't link their Atom feed, but it's here if you'd like to subscribe.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Recordings: The Chieftains / Live from Dublin

This will be a somewhat unusual record review.

First things first: I like The Chieftains. They're a great band and seem to be fine people. "Live from Dublin" is a tribute to Derek Bell, their long-time harpist and all-around interesting guy. But I'm not going to buy it, because their record label, Sony, chose to include software which is not beneficial to people who legally own the CD, behaves like spyware and is dangerous to your computer.

According to Sony and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the software contains a defect which could allow malicious software to gain control over your computer. A similar piece of malware delivered on other Sony CDs in the name of copy protection was in fact exploited by virus writers.

According to Edward Felton, the software:

  1. Installs without meaningful consent or notification, even if you decline the license agreement
  2. Includes either no uninstaller or an uninstaller that fails to remove major components of the software
  3. Transmits information about you to SunnComm, the developer of the software, without notification or consent

If you already own this CD, don't put it in your computer. It is safe to put it in an audio-only CD player, however. If you have already put the CD into your computer then you may want to remove the Sony/SunnComm software from your computer. Don't use the so-called "uninstaller" included with the CD; like the uninstaller for Sony's other "content protection" system, it's as dangerous as software itself. However, the uninstaller linked on the EFF page has (at least temporarily) disappeared from SunnComm's site, and when you search SunnComm's site for an uninstaller, they try to talk you into updating the software instead. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the problems disclosed thus far are the only problems with the software. [Update: Well, that didn't take long. A new problem in the patched version was announced while I was typing the original version of this post!] When a record label appears to presume that their customers are criminals, why would they worry about their customer's security? Why would I want to run software on my computer which does nothing for me? The EFF is suing Sony over this.

Think this doesn't apply to you if you have a Mac? I wouldn't count on it.

Sony would like to sell me a laptop. But given that they try to install this software and other software which is even worse on computers which they don't produce, why would I trust them not to put such malware on a computer they produce themselves?

I have no reason to believe The Chieftains have anything to do with this software being on their CD. I presume, based on what I know about how the record industry works, that the decision to include it was made by the record label alone.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Practice: Hitting the High (Up) Notes

I was in Santa Fe, NM, a week ago for my brother's wedding, so while there I tried, without any luck, to find a session to sit in with. The closest thing I found was Celtic de Santa Fe, a dance school; the owner gave me the name of a local musician she knew, but by then it was Thanksgiving and I had to give up.

But I did manage to practice a little. I was playing really badly, and at first I presumed it was because I was somewhat out of practice with all the travelling that I've been doing over the past few weeks. Later on it hit me that I was close to 7000 feet (over 2000 meters) above sea level — higher than Denver by a good bit — and the air was much thinner. It didn't bother me so much when walking around the city or hiking, but I really noticed the difference while playing the whistle.

And that taught me something valuable: My breath control sucks. Or, at least, I wasn't giving it the attention it deserved.

I've thought a lot about breathing in the past, but mostly in terms of intake, how to get the air in. I've noticed that if I inhale too deeply or if I'm running out of air that the quality of the sound I get from the whistle suffers and I need to let some air out through my nose or inhale again, respectively. But when I strarted trying to pay extra attention to keeping my breath pressure consistent it really helped even out the timbre.

But what does "consistent" really mean? Obviously different pressure is required for notes in different octaves, and breath requirement changes across each octave as well. It also changes between different whistles. Rather than think too much about this I'm just trying to listen to the sounds I'm producing and aim for an even tone. This mostly works well, but I notice that I tend to over-blow when I play outside, since the whistle sounds quieter in the open air than it does in the small room where I usually practice. I have to consciously think about playing "quieter" to get it right.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tunes: John Ryan's Polka

When I was at the Aptos, CA session last week someone started a polka. The name of the tune was "somebody Ryan's"; I think it might have been Peg Ryan's. I half-jokingly asked if "she" was related to John Ryan, at which point folks decided to play that tune as well.

I've just learned the tune and wanted to play along, but the session was playing it about three times faster than I could manage. People tend to do that with John Ryan's; it's one of the tunes which is simple enough that it actually sounds really good when played dizzingly fast.

But rather than sit out the tune altogether I just tooted along on the eighth note pairs that start every other bar (like the first pair of high Ds) and omitted the rest. This was all I could keep up with, but it actually sounded good with just those notes.

I heard another whistler at my regular session do a similar thing with Harvest Home. He's a pretty good whistler, so I suspect he was doing it just for the sound rather than because he couldn't keep up. At any rate, he didn't play any of the low As in the first three full measures in the second part. I also liked the sound of that, as a variation.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Seisiún: Off to California

I'm in Scotts Valley, CA for a week to meet with some folks at Borland, and as I had a free day yesterday I decided to look for a session. It turns out that there are quite a few sessions in the Santa Cruz area but the only one I could make during my trip was the second Sunday slow/intermediate session meeting at the Britannia Arms Pub in Aptos.

Like the session I attend in Columbus, it was very friendly, somewhat informal, and welcoming to beginners. When I entered the pub I sat down outside the circle to try and get a feel for the session before joining in. Someone spotted my whistle case, however, and asked me to join almost as soon as I sat down, and then almost immediately invited me to start a tune. I found it to be a very welcoming group. As chance would have it, I had attended Sunday services at the Unitarian Universalist church in Aptos that morning and found it to be a very outgoing and warm group as well, so maybe there are just a lot of nice people in the Aptos area....

But there were differences from the Columbus session, as well. For one thing, the mix of instruments was different. In Columbus we have enough fiddles to stock a symphony orchestra, whereas there were only two fiddlers in Aptos, but three people played mandolins, making them the most common instrument in the session. Someone also brought a cello, which was neat. More significantly (though not surprisingly), the tunes were different. I recognized nearly all of them, but even when I knew how to play the tune they sometimes played it differently; the folks in Aptos play Sí bheag Sí mhor with repeats, whereas I've always played it straight through. It threw me off a bit until I figured out what they were doing, and then I could keep up. When I was invited to start tunes it took a little comparison of notes to find some that both I and the rest of the session knew, but after some discussion I ended up starting Harvest Home and the Swallowtail Jig.

This was the first time I've attended a session while traveling, and it was a great experience, both because the folks in the session were so nice and because it was challenging for me to keep up with musicians who do things differently than I'm used to. That's a good thing; it's always good practice to listen. I'm certainly going to seek out sessions when I travel in the future.

Anyone know of a session meeting next week in Santa Fe?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Shopping: A Cheap Case for My Cheap Whistles

My wife, who knits, and loves me, suggested that a knitting needle case might work very well for storing whistles. I purchased one from Joann Fabrics. It has enough pockets to hold three or four metal whistles, but probably wouldn't fit wood or plastic whistles. The slots in the case are also too small for anything pitched lower than soprano D. It also holds my tuner, extra fipples, and accessories. The outside of the case is quilted fabric, and the inside is plastic. There is a zipper around the outside to close the case.

You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

The case normally costs $14, but it's pretty easy to find coupon codes for; just check back regularly enough and you'll find a code for 40-50% off on the home page.

This case suits me well since I play cheap whistles. If I played $200 whistles I'd probably want something nicer.

I've also been told that drum stick bags make good, cheap whistle cases. You can impress your seisiún with a coffin case for your whistle.

Update: The Whistle Shop is now selling a couple drum stick bags as whistle cases. They're a bit more appropriate, I think, than the "coffin" style mentioned above.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Personal: Sunflowers

A snapshot from a pumpkin-picking trip.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Practice: Dog Panting

At my last lesson my teacher asked me, "Do you [when not playing] think a lot about breathing?" I told him that yes, I do.

Ornamentation semantics

We talked for a while about the "breathing as ornamentation" idea expressed in that post. He both agreed and disagreed, the distinction being how you define "ornamentation." I could say that ornamentation means:

  1. Any conscious modification of a tune or deviation from the printed score.
  2. Any modification intended to call attention to itself in some way; a flourish or filigree.

My teacher feels that although you frequently drop notes while breathing that doesn't mean the gap has to be long or obvious. So it's an ornamentation in the sense that it's a change to the melody but not an ornamentation in the sense that it isn't really supposed to stand out. I can go along with that. But then again, I find that in general my favorite ornaments to listen to are the ones that don't really stand out.

Diaphragmatic breathing

As I learn to play tunes faster, I need to breathe faster, too. How can I learn that? My teacher wants me to focus on using my diaphragm.

Folks who have studied experiential anatomy (or maybe just classical flute) know that there are many different "methods" of breathing. You can breathe in by expaning your chest or contracting your diaphragm. The latter is advantageous for flute and whistle as you can move more air faster with your diaphragm than with your chest. Also, breathing this way won't move your shoulders, which interferes with how you hold your instrument.

We tried a couple of exercises to help me learn to focus on the diaphragm while breathing:

  • Put your hand on your diaphragm; it's just below your belly button. Breathe, and try to feel the muscle in action.
  • Pant like a dog, really quickly. You'll have to use your diaphragm, because it's the only way you can breathe that fast.
  • You can find more exercises on this page if the previous two are not enough.

I also found this old chiffboard post by David Migoya which concisely expresses something I've noticed while practicing the whistle:

Part of the key to good diaphram control is the use of the nose. Not only should you know how to take in breath through both the mouth and nose while you play, but you should know how to EXHALE through your nose WHILE you play. This gets rid of "stale" air and greatly increases the capacity of your body to take in fresh air for playing. I don't do this a lot on the flute, but I use it quite a bit on the whistle as I'm not using near as much breath.

I've found that if I'm not careful about regulating my breathing I can have too much air in my lungs and this makes articulation difficult. But I can breathe out through my nose while playing to get down to a more comfortable volume of air.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Recordings: Pooh - Friends Forever

Although my daughter has excellent musical taste, we do from time to time buy or borrow so-called "children's music." And although a great deal of it is, well, horrible, and never gets played again after the first listening, there are exceptions. So the other day my wife tells me that she's picked up a Winnie-the-Pooh CD at the library with some tin whistle on a couple tracks, and our daughter likes it. Sounds interesting, but I didn't think much of it. Then a couple days later we're riding in the car and she puts the CD, called, "Pooh - Friends Forever" on.

Well, yes, there's tin whistle, but there's also Uilleann pipes, simple system flute, they're playing a jig, and when I pick up the CD I see that track 13, "Reel Friendship," is performed by Solas. Solas on a Pooh CD?!? How weird is that? Even stranger, you'd hardly know it to look a the CD. Solas is mentioned in tiny type on the back. Most of the musicians are uncredited. The folks from Solas are credited, as are some of the vocalists — sort of — but it's not at all clear who plays most of the instruments on the CD or even who wrote the songs. Do John Doyle and Winifred Horan play only on the single Solas track? Someone with a better ear for style than I posess will have to answer that. Seamus Egan is credited for playing the bodhran — only! All in all it's an odd little find.

Not all of the CD is ITM. Granted, ITM doesn't generally feature Tigger on vocals, but some of the tracks are a bluegrassy version of what you've come to expect from "Pooh songs" if you've seen a few of the Disney movies. That doesn't make them bad, however; the whole CD is a cut above the typical Disney soundtrack.

You can hear samples of the CD at the Amazon page.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Practice: Hard Wired Foot

Changing how I tap my foot turns out to be extremely difficult! It's hard to think about that and whistle at the same time, so I've been doing it while humming or listening to CDs. I also worked on this when I went to my local session last week (at least, when I wasn't playing). Someone later told me that I looked like I was really concentrating....

I can sorta do it for the first part of the only reel I know right now (my session seems to lean heavily towards jigs and hornpipes, so that's mostly what I've been learning) but I have to think about it a lot. I haven't begun to deal with the issue which caused me to need to do this, which is getting the swing of a reel right. I think I need to wait until the toe-tapping comes as naturally as it used to before I can do that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

WWW: Nude Pipe and Whistle Calendar

The calendar you've always wanted but have never thought to ask for is now on sale. But the effort did not come without certain technical difficulties:

Following the success of the previous two years (the 2004 nude accordion calendar "Pulling Out All The Stops" and the 2005 nude guitar calendar "No Strings Attached"), the Folk Arts Council Board decided that in 2006 we should buff up with bagpipes and whistles – undoubtedly a more challenging proposition for intrepid photographer Sheilagh O'Leary. The average tin whistle might not be up for the job of hiding someone's private parts, even if a low D whistle is used!

Sales benefit the St. John's Folk Arts Council, for those needing to justify the charge to their spouse.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Technique: Tapping Out a Reel

For the last three weeks I've been trying to avoid learning anything new.

More precisely, I've been practicing the tunes I've learned thus far, focusing on performance. My renditions of several of the tunes had become a bit sloppy, and my teacher asked me to focus my practice on playing the tunes well rather than new tunes or techniques. It was timely advice.

One of the things I noticed when I stopped making as many mistakes and got my timing more consistent is that a reel I've been learning, the Five Mile Chase started sounding really mechanical — like a string of eighth notes rather than a reel. This was very similar to a similar problem I had with jigs which I'm presently working on correcting. I made a note to bring the issue up with my teacher and expected a similar solution.

Interesting advice

I had a lesson last night, and his suggestion surprised me a little. Yes, I need to emphasize notes differently depending on their position in the measure. But the best way to fix this, it seems, is to change the way I tap my foot.

I doubt I would have come up with that one on my own! Part of his advice has to do with counting in cut time instead of common time. But part of it is literally changing the physical way I move my foot. I'll treat both issues separately.

Reel beats

It's common to see reels notated in both common (4/4) and cut (2/2) time. In both common and cut time there are the same number of quarter notes per measure, so the note values won't change if you move from one time signature to the other. But it's generally understood the music in cut time is played faster, since there are half as many beats to count. Also, the emphasis is different: You emphasize the notes which fall on a count more than those which do not, so fewer counts means fewer emphasized notes.

On the subject of how to notate a reel, Alan Ng writes:

A group is defined here as a sequence of notes whose first note is synchronized with the (main) tap of the musician's foot in a traditional performance.

Reel: Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an eight-note bar. Within each group there are two heavy-light pairs. Accordingly, I notate reels in 2/2 meter, not in 4/4. A 4/4 notation is a less accurate reflection of the traditional sense of rhythm in a reel...

Well, the "traditional sense of rhythm in a reel" is exactly what I'm aiming for, so Ng's advice is in line with my teacher's in that respect. I confess that when I started playing the whistle I'd sometimes count reels notated in cut time in common time instead, simply because my playing was so pathetic that I'd lose track of the beat if I had to go four notes in between taps. But I'm past that now!

Methods of foot tapping

I've been involved in making music in one capacity or another for over 15 years now, and it had never before occurred to me that there are different methods of tapping your toe. But there are, and it's quite enlightening to ponder.

What I had been doing is holding my toe off the ground and then tapping it onto the ground on each beat. This is quite tiring, so I tend to switch feet when my leg gets tired. My teacher's first suggestion was to keep my foot on the ground and lift it up before the beat, bringing it to the ground on the beat, and keeping it on the ground until just before the next beat. This is a different sense of rhythm than I'm used to, and it's going to take some practice.

For a reel in cut time, he suggested lifting my foot off the ground on the half beats (what would be the 2 or the 4 beats if the same passage was notated in common time) and bringing it to the ground on the full beats (the 1 and the three in common time). Again, I'm going to have to practice this while listening to a CD or humming before I can even try this while playing.

Counting this way makes the beats to emphasize quite similar to a jig. Handy, that.

Time to practice

I ususally have lessons every two weeks, but due to circumstances it has been three weeks since my last lesson. I don't mind that a bit; it gave me lots of time to practice and listen to myself. We tried lessons every week for a while, but that was too often; I didn't have time to practice what we'd discussed the week before. Sometimes less is more.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Practice: Not Too Late

This is a small thing, but it makes a big difference for me: Since I have a full-time job and a family, I tend to practice in the evening. Sometimes night. But I've found it's really worth the effort to practice as early as I can. 8:00 or 9:00 at night is fine. But at 10:00 or later I'm really too tired to focus. Practice is much more satisfying when I'm not too tired to concentrate.

Similarly, I can't practice well if I'm stressed out or have other things on my mind. This all might seem kind of obvious, but it was easy for me to allow housework to push my practice sessions very late, and I've now made a point of practicing first, since my housework doesn't suffer nearly so much for me being tired or distracted.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Recordings: New CTL Next Week!

When I reviewed Cherish the Ladies's show at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival a while back, I raved about their new vocalist (and bodhrán player), Heidi Talbot. Unfortunately, the only CTL CD she's appeared on thus far has been On Christmas Night, and I've had a permanent nervous reaction to Christmas Carols due to overexposure to Muzak when I worked in a grocery store in high school (the drugs and therapy have helped quite a bit, thank you).

So it's wonderful to see that CTL has a new album, Woman of the House, due out 27 September which features Ms. Talbot and is Irish / Celtic music from start to finish. You can hear samples from every track on the album today on the linked Amazon page. It would probably be premature to call this the best CTL release ever before I can hear the entire CD instead of just excerpts from each track. But it's really good!

[It's a dollar cheaper to buy the CD directly from the record label, but the label really kills you on the shipping charge, whereas you can get free or cheap shipping from Amazon, depending on how much you buy. But take your pick.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Technique: Learning to Breathe

For me, learning how to breathe without breaking the rhythm of a tune is not easy. I've written about this before, but in the months since I wrote that post I've changed my conclusions.

Breathing as Ornamentation

I've explicitly discarded an assumption which I didn't write about at the time and might not even have been conscious of when I wrote the previous post. As a beginner, my instinct was to try and make breaths as inconspicuous as possible. The trouble with that notion is that "as inconspicuous as possible" is still pretty conspicuous!

I don't think there's any way to play a quick tune (or at least most tunes) in such a way that the listener can't tell when you breathe. Certainly, it isn't difficult for me to hear very good whistlers taking breaths when I listen to CDs. Circular breathing is for didgeridoos. So if we accept that there will always be an audible gap in the music when we breathe (unlike, say, the fiddle or the pipes), then instead of hiding the gap in the tune altogether we must make the gap appropriate for the tune. Turning lemons into lemonade, as it were. A well-placed gap for a breath, in other words, is an ornament, a variation in the tune which adds musical interest.

One good way to learn about using this form of ornamentation is to listen to recordings of Irish music on the flute. Flutes require a lot more air than (soprano) whistles, so the players have to breathe more. Hence, you have a lot more opportunities to listen for this in a flute passage.

There's an ornament I've always liked that I hear most prominently on flute recordings, but you can hear in whistle recordings as well, where a player shortens a note and skips one or two notes which follow. I'm embarassed to say that it didn't occur to me until recently that this was not merely done for style but that the player was breathing as well! In case it's not clear what I'm referring to, consider the following two score fragments:

Unornamented score fragmentScore fragment ornamented with emphasis on first note and gap for breath

The first score is an unornamented bit of a tune. Although notating ornamentations is an approximation at best, I've attempted to express in the second version what I'm hearing on the recordings — a note is shortened but emphasized, the following note is gone altogether, and then the tune picks up after a rest.

If you're following along at home, now would be a good time to put on your favorite Irish flute CD, as it will probably give you a better impression of what I'm discussing than my clunky notation above.

An Ornamentation Approach to Learning to Breathe

Well, it's all fine and good to assert that breathing is an ornament, but it doesn't make it any easier to do, does it? After all, I can choose not to practice rolls until I get the fundamental rhythm of a tune right, but I can't choose not to breathe. It's a difficult thing, biology.

But maybe it does help. Because it suggests that what I said I found helpful last time:

So here's something which may seem obvious to folks who have played for a while, but took me a bit to realize: You can continue to finger the note as usual even though you don't blow it while you breathe. This way you're not disrupting the normal movement of your fingers during the breath. profoundly wrong. There's a nugget of truth in what I wrote, I think: The reason I was losing the rhythm was that what was going through my head and what I was doing physically were different. But I picked the wrong solution. Instead of attempting to avoid changing what I was doing — and as I noted above, you can't avoid breathing — I should have been trying to change what I expected to play. I can play a tune better when I have an expressive version in my head.

It's not a magic bullet, though. I can do this well when I'm playing quite slowly, or if I practice breathing in a particular passage, but it's going to take some practice to be able to do it at will when playing quickly.


So the lengthy post above boils down to this:

  • I find it valuable to listen to good flutists on CD, and pay attention to their "breathing ornaments." I'm trying to get this ingrained in my head.
  • When I'm playing a tune and I need to breathe, I try and imagine the sound of the notes I'm about to play with this ornament. It make it easier to execute.
  • When I do this, I no longer get confused by not fingering the notes I drop. In fact, trying to finger them is confusing. It suggests I'm playing the tune mindfully instead of from muscle memory.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

WWW: Open Directory Tin Whistle Category

The Open Directory is a community effort to build the world's largest human-edited Web directory. The tin whistle category was pretty badly out of date, so I volunteered to edit it, and my application was accepted yesterday. I've just started working, and it will take me a while to get everything in order, but I have managed to go through the backlog of submissions and publish those which fit the category. (Note that if you're an instrument builder I've published your link in the Tin Whistle/Makers category and if you run a store then you should be listed in /Shopping/Music/Instruments/Winds/Tin Whistle/, which I don't control.)

But this is just a start. My goal is to build the most comprehensive index of tin whistle links on the Internet, and you can help! There are many sites I haven't had a chance to look up and add, and more I'm simply unaware of. Do you know of a whistle-related site not currently listed? General sites, links to instrument makers, tune lists, and performers are all fair game. Find the appropriate category and use the "suggest URL" link at the top of the page to let me know. I want to build a useful resource for the tin whistle community.

Note that it takes a few days after I've added a site for it to become visible to the public, so please have patience after you submit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Books: Last Night's Fun

Ciaran Carson is the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University Belfast, an author of several books of poetry and prose, and a winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. He's also a flutist and tin whistler, and, from the sound of things, has spent much of his life driving around Ireland and America, playing with sessions, picking up hitchhikers, and sampling the poteen. In Last Night's Fun he improvises around these ideas in a literary analogy to ornamenting a tune.

The book is a collection of essays, each named for a tune. The style ranges from poetry to prose to collage, from historical to hilarious, with a healthy dose of autobiography. Essays which don't consist in their entirety of extracts from works by other authors are frequently salted with lengthy quotes. The poetry is mostly Carson's own, but there are a few poems from John Loughran, and one from Séamus Ennis(!).

It is often observed that Irish music is a living tradition best learned and experienced live, but attempts to explain why this is so to the spectator not familiar with the experience often fall short. Last Night's Fun tests the limits of printed material in relating the experience of playing in a lively session, along with the music and lifestyle of the ITM community.

Here's an excerpt:

We were all apprentice Druids then, I think, led by the resident genius of Mick Hoy the fiddle-player. Stuck out in the starving wilderness, deprived of supermarkets, we'd improvise cuisine from sorrel, chickweed, nettles, mucshrooms and wild garlic, inspired by the arcane herbal forage-knowledge of Gary Hastings. Soup was made in a vast antique cast-iron stockpot, and in the morning you would find the aluminum ladle standing vertically in a green glue residue.
Time got out of mind as last night's fun embraced the next hungover morning and we staggered out again into the dawn of afternoon to hunt for wild herbs. We were oxymorons, children of the Sixties caught in a Celtic time warp where tunes were handed on by fairies or acquired in dreams: dimly sceptical of magic, we found ourselves surrounded by it, and the old tunes we learned from Mick became our conversation. Even the new tunes, like 'The Floating Crowbar' (I have heard it attributed to the fiddle-player Brendan McGlinchey), corresponded to a neo-Druidic sympathetic magic, where — so the story goes — the forged-steel murder weapon ditched in the river floated to the surface with the blood and hair of the victim still clotted to it. The reel took on the antique connotation of a Grimm's tale, with its talking horse's head that revealed the nub of the story in a cryptic rhyme. Mick would tell us tall tales....

Monday, September 12, 2005

Seisiún: Bardic Circle at Amore Restaurant

Bardic Circle session will play again at Amore Restaurant in Westerville, Ohio, from around 8:00 - 11:00 p.m. on Thursday 15 September 2005. Look at my previous post for directions.

You can come join the session, dance, listen, or just eat!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Tunes: The Galtee Hunt

This is my favorite hornpipe. I first heard it on Kells' excellent CD "SuR;" the liner notes describe it as a "very well-known hornpipe," but nobody in the Columbus, Ohio area seems to have heard of it. So I've made it my mission in life (well, in ITM anyway) to promote the tune.

Clannad have also recorded this tune; it's on Dulaman and some of their compilations. I like Kells' recording most, but Clannad's version is also good.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Shows: 2005 Dublin Irish Festival

Michael Burke sells his wares in the music vendors' tent.

This is an index to my other posts on the subject of the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

The Irish Festival is an incredible value. For $8 per day you get to see lots of great bands which would cost twice that individually. The only negative is the beer they serve (two Coors products); I can only conclude it's some sort of thinly-disguised anti-drunkenness campaign. So I was delighted to hear this song wafting out of the pub tent on Saturday....

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tunes: Sí bheag Sí mhor

So Jerry Freeman posted this request for folks to play a tune or lift a glass for his mum, who passed away recently. I have a Jerry-tweaked Clarke Sweetone, so I chose that whistle and played Sí bheag Sí mhor. I've been practicing other stuff, so I hadn't played the tune in a while, but I ended up playing it really well. Almost eerily well, considering what a terrible whistler I am. Certainly better than I had personally ever played it before. Maybe the somber occasion helped me focus on the tune? It was the best I could have done to fulfill Jerry's request, and I was happy about that.

At any rate, I played the tune again later that day to make sure I could still play it with the same feeling (I could) and thought some about what I was doing differently. Mentally the difference is easy to explain: As I played, I was thinking about the recordings of the song that I've heard instead of thinking about how to count the notes. This is how it should be done, but it was hard for me to do in the past before I had really learned it. It really does confirm the value of listening to recordings of tunes that you're learning repeatedly, however; sooner or later they get stamped into your mind and will surface to help your playing when you least expect it! But that has to translate into some kind of physical change in my playing, and I was curious what it was.

I discussed this with my teacher and played the tune both ways for him. He pointed out that I was tonguing a bit less and playing it faster. Both of these are true, but I think there's something more. I think I'm swinging the beat a little and modulating how much air I put into each note as it progresses. The physical changes are incredibly subtle, but the net effect is like night and day to me.

I also found that I was ornamenting it a bit less, in spite of the fact that, in skilled hands, the tune sounds better with ornamentation. But my focus was on getting the feel right. In the end, the thing that I wanted most was to do something very subtle with the five-count high-Ds in the middle and at the end of the tune. Brian, my teacher, suggested two possibilities: A quick tongue at the very end of the note and vibrato. Vibrato, I think, works really well in the case of really long notes at the end of the tune, though it's not something I'd typically want to use elsewhere. It's just right for these Ds, though. I have to use diaphragmatic vibrato in this case because, well, I'm not sure how else you could do it on a high D. On the Sweetone, a cylindrical whistle, I can get a nice, really subtle vibrato on the high D by covering and uncovering the top hole, but I find that doesn't really change the pitch perceptably (though it does change the timbre) on a cylindrical whistle. [Update: Joanie Madden says diaphragmatic vibrato is the way to go for a D, and that's good enough for me.]

I can do the diaphragmatic vibrato OK when I do it really slowly, but that doesn't fit when I play the tune at normal speed. That's like learning any other ornamentation; I have to start slow.

The "quick tongue at the end of the note" idea sounds good when I play the note straight, but with vibrato it's too much stuff in one note, I think.

The song itself, which I have vowed to spell differently every time I mention it, is said to be the first composition of 17th century Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan. Many people seem surprised to learn that it's a song. When I was first learning the melody I thought that it would help to learn the words, even though they're in Irish, to help me remember the notes. But I've never been able to find a vocal recording.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Shows: The Kells [DIF]

The Kells performing at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. That's Brian McCoy, who taught the festival whistle workshops on the right. I only got to see about half of their performance since it was getting close to the end of the day and my three-year-old daughter was ready to leave. The Kells play energetic, traditional music; you can hear it here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Interviews: Colin Melville

Colin Melville has played Highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes, and whistles for the Tannahill Weavers for five years. I spoke to Colin after their Saturday evening show at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

The tape of the interview is quite noisy, so any errors in transcription are of course mine.

Learning to Whistle: Do you think there's any such thing as a "Scottish whistling style" (as opposed to repertoire), or is whistling pretty much wistling?
Colin Melville: I think the actual method of playing is pretty much the same for everybody. I think when you talk about Irish style or Scottish style or whatever else it's more with the material you're playing, and playing style is probably more down to the individual than the country you're from, I guess.

LTW: It does seem to be fairly common that a lot of Scottish whistlers are also pipers. How does piping affect your whistling?
CM: Well, obviously you use your fingers, so that's similar, but you know the scale is completely different. Obviously, with the bagpipes you've only got nine notes to deal with (obviously have a lot more on the whistle) and you have to learn a lot of new decorations. That's probably the toughest part, for a piper to change their decorations. When you first pick [the whistle] up you try and do the same things, but you have to start using tonguing and stuff like that. It's a different discipline.

LTW: How do you rehearse a tune where you use pipes and whistle at the same time? ...There's such a difference in volume...
CM: When we practice with the band — well, most practices — I usually use the [Scottish] smallpipes, in place of the Highland pipes just for that reason, in spite of the fact that it makes for a color difference acoustically. Other people can hear what they're practicing as well!

LTW: I've read that when you play the whistle and the Highland pipes together you use an E♭ whistle, but it looked like Phil was playing an A whistle tonight?
CM: No, everything we use in the band is all — well, because of the pipes being in B♭ — is tuned around that. There are capos on the guitar and the bouzouki, and the fiddle is tuned up. All the whistles and flutes are E♭ or B♭. The one which looked like A, that'd be a B♭, and then you've got the high E♭ and the low E♭s.
LTW: Right, because [the Highland pipes, which play a tone closer to B♭ when an A is fingered] are not concert pitch....
CM: Yeah.

LTW: In terms of playing the whistle, who are your favorite artists to listen to for performance ideas?
CM: I'd have to say Brian Finnegan. He's a star. I can't get my head around some of the stuff he does with it sometimes. With Flook, his band; they're great. You know, there's so many up-and-coming guys that play, a lot of them pipers... they're getting into different instruments. Findlay Napier (of Back of the Moon), I heard him recently playing the flute... absolutely fantastic. Finlay MacDonald, a great piper, he's also really good on the whistle especially.

LTW: Let's say you like to listen to Scottish music and you want to learn to play it; is there a "short list" of "core tunes" you might want to start with...? I'm not saying you need to list the tunes, but where would you look to begin with?
CM: It's kind of funny, when you go around Scotland, to different parts of the country, if you go down to sessions or if you play with local musicians, you do find that small regions have a set, "core tunes," but when you go to different regions there are different "core tunes." There are obviously some that transcend, but everybody has a set of tunes that they can easily play together. But it's funny, when you go to a different side of the country it's a different set of tunes. And that's the way that you find them. Most people, to find them, go to sessions, play with other guys, and you hear them all the time. I wouldn't say there are specific books or recordings that have got just these tunes in them....
LTW: ...because I look at the Tannahill Weavers and there are a lot of tunes which interest me, but you guys have [14] CDs, and...
CM: Yeah, where do you start? Funny enough, a lot of tunes that the Tannahills recorded way, way back, they're now very popular tunes, whereas when they recorded them they were unheard of.

LTW: I was trying to learn Tranent Muir by ear from your recording and play it on the whistle and I kept needing to go into the third octave....
CM: Very often you just make something up which sounds OK. The songs do tend to go way out, further than a whistle can, definately further than the pipes can. So you very often find yourself trying to stick as much as you can to the melody line but when it goes way above or below you just have to make something up!

LTW: You do [onstage] some fairly impressive feats of instrument changes [e.g., going from the whistle to the smallpipes to the Highland pipes, which requires strapping and unstrapping the smallpipe bellows]....
CM: [Laughs.] Not for the first time I've been caught out a few times — everyone's staring at me, and I'm... "What's wrong?" I'm supposed to be playing the smallpipes or something and I'm just standing there.

LTW: I know you guys recorded a tune from a Scottish whistle tutor. But I haven't seen that book in the U.S. Have you ever seen a whistle tutorial with Scottish music that you liked?
CM: To be honest, I kind of learned through sessions, and bands playing along. When I started playing folk music I was a piper, and I thought, I've only got a few sets [for the pipes]; I'd be sitting there the rest of the night, and I thought, I'm going to have to do something here. So that's how I started playing the whistle. Kind of unconventional roots. I have come across a few tutorial books over the years and they're varied in quality. You know, everyone has at least something that teaches you something new, so it may just be best to go out and buy a few of them, if you can find a few kind of cheap ones, then you pick up lots of little bits and pieces....

LTW: Can you tell me about the whistles you play; who makes them and what do you like about them?
CM: The low whistle I play is a Chieftan. I've been playing a low D Chieftan for a long, long time, and when I joined the band I just naturally got an E♭, because I'm just so comfortable with it. I recently ordered a set of high whistles from a guy called Chris Abell, from North Carolina. So you get the same head with the E♭, the D, and C bodies, and I just think they're wonderful. I just got them a couple months ago, and you can really hear them coming in now; they're starting to get "played in." They're just a joy to play. I definately recommend them. We also use the cheap ones; the B♭ one we use is just the Generation. You have to go through a box of them; you have to find a "good one," to spend time going through them.

LTW: How do you orchestrate a tune, decide which instruments you're going to put to it? Is it trial and error or...?
CM: Trial and error to a certain extent. There's a format we use very often on stage. You know, you're not going to put the bagpipes in at the start and play the small whistle at the end because of the power of the bagpipes. You should put them at the end if you're going to put them in a song; you get that blast. As far as choosing my instruments, trying to decide whether to play the whistle with the smallpipes, or the high whistle with the smallpipes, that part usually depends on what Phil is doing, if he's playing the flute and whistle as well. Two whistles together sound lovely; you can throw lovely harmonies in. But if I'm playing smallpipes and he's playing whistle it gives you more freedoms; you can mess up and get away with it! With the same instrument you notice every little — if somebody does something slightly different you can hear it. When playing different instruments it gives you a little bit more of a free reign with what you're doing. So that's something to barter.

LTW: What's it like to join a band that has three decades of history behind it before you came on?
CM: Yeah, it's pretty weird. It's pretty weird. It's great, you know. I was just handed this opportunity... Do you want to join the Tannahill Weavers? "Hmmm... Let me think about that..." [Laughs] Well now I've put in five years and I'm quite comfortable with it. At the start it was quite, quite daunting.
LTW: Did you have to study all their old material, to pick up the tunes?
CM: Yeah, yeah. I knew the piper who was before me in the band; he was very helpful with it. It made things a lot easier because he spent a lot of time going through the material with me. In the first gig — actually, I just remembered that — the first gig I did with them was in Germany, and I only met Roy the afternoon of that gig; it was the first time I'd met him. [Ed. note: Roy lives in the Netherlands.] Up until then we'd just been practicing to tapes and things. That was pretty weird. I was pretty nervous about it, but it all went well I think. I'm still with them so I must be doing something OK.
LTW: It seems like you're doing quite a lot. You're not just piping; you're involved in the production and [writing] the music....
CM: Yeah; that's a really good opportunity for me because the band records — well, we usually do it on our own — so we do a lot of the recording and then there's a sound engineer who comes in and helps us with it. Because if you're in a commercial studio you're really pushed for time; it's all money, money, money. But because we have our own little place we can sit and take our time, follow our ideas and mess about with things.

LTW: Roy told me that you guys never perform The Great Ships live, and I'm curious: Are there songs that just can't be done live, or...?
CM: Yeah, there are some songs that are more difficult to come up with a live arrangement. Just for an example there are a lot of songs and tunes that John plays cello and viola — all sorts of "stringy things!" — and he can't do that live and some things that there'll be a kind of technical part in the arrangment and that becomes a lot more difficult. You have to come up with a new arrangement basically to do that live. We like to do things live pretty much the way they are on the CD.

LTW: Do you have any good stories from your tour?
CM: [Laughs] Uhhh.....
LTW: ...any you're willing to repeat?
CM: Yeah, exactly! Here's a funny one: Coming through customs, coming into the country, just last weekend. John the fiddler, he came up to the guy; you know, you get a little interview. The guy says, "What are you doing here?"
"I play in a band."
[The customs inspector asked] what kind of band, what kind of music do you play, what instrument, and all that, and they're chattin' away, and [the inspector] is writing on this form, and he looked at John, and said, "So, your occupation would be...?"
John said, "Musician."
[The inspector] went to write it and he looked up at John and said, "Umm... I'll just write fiddle player; it's easier to spell."
It's true! Incredible, but true.
That will get me in trouble; I'll get pulled aside on my way out of the country!

Tunes: Tranent Muir

Tranent Muir is the lesser known of two ballads by Adam Skirving about the Battle of Prestonpans; Johnny Cope is the other. The Tannahill Weavers have recorded both of them, although their version of Tranent Muir includes only six out of fifteen verses of this long and graphically violent song.

Both songs are discussed in Michael Brander's Scottish and Border Battles and Ballads, an interesting book which examines battle songs in the context of history. This book was my main source for the historical comments in this post, although I also consulted some documents online [1, 2, 3].

In the summer of 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, commonly known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie," mounted a campaign to take Scotland with an eye towards reclaiming what he considered to be his throne. Against long odds, and aided by the early support of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, his party of ten raised an army which eventually numbered over 2000 Scots as they marched to Glenfinnan and then to Edinburgh.

Sir John Cope, the general commanding government forces in Scotland, was commanded to raise forces to stop the rising. He did so, but the vast majority of his recruits had no experience whatsoever, and he was hampered by a variety of other issues including the sickeness of his principal cavalry officer. Despite this, the officers apparently believed that the rebels would never attack a single force including both infantry and cavalry. They assured locals during their march that there would be no battle. In this they were almost right, but they incorrectly identified which side would back down! Skirving references this claim in verse three:

The bluff dragoons swore, blood and oons!
They'd make the rebels run, man:
And yet they flee when them they see,
And winna fire a gun, man.

Charles's army took Edinburgh with little or no fighting on the 16th of September; Cope, travelling by ship from Aberdeen, arrived too late to challenge them.

On 20 September Cope's forces encountered Charles's advance guard. Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army. Cope kept fires burning and moved his forces during the night as the Highlanders advanced under cover of darkeness. At the crack of dawn on 21 September 1745, Cope's dragoons beheld the spectacle of 1400 charging Highlanders accompanied, according to Brander, "by wild Highland war cries and the bloodcurdling skirl of the pipes...."

Cope's inexperienced army fled, despite Cope and his officers attempting to force them to charge at pistol point. The "battle" was over in five minutes with close to 1000 government troops killed or wounded and 1500 held prisoner. The Highlanders suffered only around 100 troops killed or wounded.

Despite the overwhelming defeat and the fact that Cope had to report it personally to the garrison commander at Berwick, 50 miles away, Skirving's lyrical accusations that Cope himself fled the battlefield appear to be incorrect. Cope and his officers were exonerated at court-martial. Martin B. Margulies, writing in History Scotland, notes:

The Report of the board's proceeding was published in 1749. Anyone who scrutinizes it closely can only conclude that the board was correct. What emerges from the pages is not, perhaps, the portrait of a military genius, but one of an able, energetic and conscientious officer, who weighed his options carefully, and who anticipated - with almost obsessive attention to detail - every eventuality except the one which he could not have provided for in any case: that his men would panic and flee.

It seems, then, that the two songs tell us as much, if not more, about Skirving himself as they do the battle. Brander writes that Skirving visited the battlefield in the afternoon, long after the conclusion of the battle itself. In the midst of that garish scene, he was by his own account mugged by the victors.

Verse nine features one Lieutenant Smith:

Lieutenant Smith of Irish birth,
Frae whom he call'd for aid, man,
But full of dread, lap o'er his head,
And wadna be gainsaid, man.

Bender writes:

Lieutenant Smith... incensed by the publication of the comments on his behaviour visited Haddington subsequently and sent Skirving a challenge to a duel. The latter pawkily replied that he was too busy on his farm. "Gang awa back," he said, "and tell Mr. Smith I havena the leisure to come to Haddington; but tell him to come here and I'll tak a look o' him and if I think I'm fit to fecht him, I'll fecht him; and if no, I'll do as he did — I'll rin awa."

I've experimented with playing the song on the whistle — at least, the tune as the Tannahill weavers play it; I presume that they are playing a traditional melody rather than one they wrote themselves. I haven't yet managed to find notation for Tranent Muir, but I've tried to play it by ear and find that I keep needing to go up into the third octave on the whistle. When I saw them perform at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival, Phil did play the whistle but stopped playing during the highest part. But if the tune can be adapted for Scottish smallpipes, with their much more limited range, then I'm sure there's a way to do it on the whistle; I just haven't figured it out yet.

There is an ironic musical postscript to Tranent Muir: In spite of his decisive victory at Prestonpans, the tables were soon turned on Bonnie Prince Charlie and his half-starved army was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. He escaped Scotland, spending the remainder of his life in exile. His flight is commemorated in the Skye Boat Song.

Shows: Tannahill Weavers [DIF]

I've been a fan of the Tannahill Weavers since first hearing their "Lucy Cassidy" set on a RykoDisc sampler back in the late '80s, but I've been listening to their recordings with a bit of a new ear since taking up the tin whistle. But I'd never had the opportunity to see them perform live.

So I was delighted when I learned that they would be coming to the Dublin Irish Festival. I also requested an interview with the band, and Colin Melville soon agreed to spend some time discussing whistling in Scottish music; I've posted the interview separately. The band played three sets at the festival; I caught them on Saturday and Sunday.

The musicians in the Tannahill Weavers have changed over the band's 37 year history, but Roy Gullane (guitar, vocals) and Phil Smillie (simple system flute, whistle, bodhrán, vocals). Colin Melville (Highland bagpipes, Scottish smallpipes, whistles) is the most recent addition; he's been in the band for five years. Leslie Wilson (bouzouki, keyboards, vocals) and John Martin (fiddle, vocals) have both been in the band for over 15 years.

I was wondering what a band with 14 full albums (not counting compilations) to its credit would play in concert, and it turns out that their taste is pretty similar to mine, as they played most of my favorite tracks! They played music from across the history of the band, including several spectacular sets of dance tunes like The Geese in the Bog / The Jig of Slurs and the Arnish Light set. I really like their new version of Cam' Ye By Athol; they first recorded it on Are Ye Sleeping Maggie, but rearranged it on Arnish Light to include a Highland bagpipes bridge. They played two songs by Adam Skirving about the Battle of Prestonpans: Tranent Muir and Johnny Cope. Of the battle itself, Roy quipped, "...the most famous battle in Scottish history, because we won it."

Roy's inter-song chats were very much in the spirit of the Tannahill Weavers's frequently amusing liner notes (all of which you can read online). Here's one of the stories he told:

Two men were out fishing in the middle of a lake when a bottle floated up to the boat. One of the men leaned over and opened it and a genie floated out of the bottle. "I'll grant you one wish," said the genie.
"Don't I get three?" asked the man.
"No, only one," replied the genie.
"OK," said the man. "I'd like you to turn entire lake into whisky." There was a poof, his wish was granted, and the genie disappeared.
"You idiot!" screamed his companion. Now we're going to have to wee in the boat!"

The Tannahill Weavers were the first successful Scottish folk band to use the Highland bagpipes in a band setting, and their unusual tuning poses certain difficulties for whistle players. When Colin is playing the pipes the rest of the band has to adapt to this, especially when playing a diatonic instrument such as the whistle. Phil plays an E♭ flute with keys, and a B♭ whistle. When Colin is playing the whistle he is of course not piping and plays high and low E♭ whistles.

At one point I was watching Phil whistle when I saw him repeatedly lift his right hand and start tapping it on top of his left hand as he played. I couldn't tell what he was doing, but I overheard another whistler ask him about this after the show and leaned in to hear the answer. "It's just a trick," he said. He plays a very fast fingered vibrato by running the first three fingers of his right hand, with a little space in between them, across the second or third finger of his left hand, which has the effect of quickly drumming the left-hand finger against the whistle hole.

It wasn't the only unusual technique observed that evening, either; at one point Roy played his guitar with a violin bow. It was also interesting when Roy stopped playing his guitar or when Les played the keyboards. This allowed me to hear the guitar and bouzouki in isolation, which normally intermingle. The Tannahill Weavers are so tight as a band and their performances are so well-arranged that it's interesting for me to try and pick them apart and identify the individual elements which make up the overall sound.

The Tannahill Weavers played for just over an hour and a half on Saturday night. The set list was substantially similar to Saturday's but reduced as the band had a shorter time slot. Sunday afternoon I brought my three-year-old daughter, also a fan of the band, to see their third show. We were a little disappointed that they didn't perform "The Great Ships" — which my daughter has memorized and likes to sing along to — but Roy told me after Saturday's show that it's one of the songs they don't ever play live. [Colin later told me why.] Nevertheless my daughter really enjoyed the show; in spite of the volume and having a three-year-old's attention span she wanted to stay for the entire show.

Monday, August 15, 2005

WWW: Introduction to Flute Acoustics

Perhaps you're a sensual artist who has little interest in science or instrument-building. In that case, feel free to ignore this post. But if you're a geek like me, if you're interested in making your own whistles, or just curious, here's a good Introduction to Flute Acoustics. The whole site is really well done; there are MP3 audio examples, hyperlinks to research papers and related articles, and he even uses a Terry McGee classical flute as an example for the "simple system" shared by the Irish flute and the tin whistle.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Seisiún: Sessions at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival

The photo above is my daughter dancing in the session tent. She loves Celtic music. She walked into the middle of the session and was leaning in close to the musicians to get a good look. Stuart, the fiddler with the green shirt, said to her, "You know, this is dance music. You could dance..." She did, and for the rest of the festival she was asking me, "Let's find more dance music!"

For the most part my whistling skills were too weak to keep up with the session. But I made a point of sitting down and playing when the session tent was empty or when there were only one or two people there, to keep things going.

Bardic Circle session playing at the Emerald Isle stage. I sat in for one tune, but I had my daughter with me on Sunday and it was kind of difficult to play with her crawling all over me!

The session tent again.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Shows: Dulahan [DIF]

Dayton, OH-based Dulahan, with Leo Butler playing the tin whistle, performs at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

By the way, you can click on the pictures on all of my recent posts to enlarge them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Shows: Cherish the Ladies [DIF]

I saw Cherish the Ladies on Saturday afternoon at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. Chiff and Fipple forums favorite Joanie Madden was excellent as always. She stomped to the beat so hard while she played I feared for the structural integrity of the stage!

But as good as Joanie is, it was hard to pay attention to her playing when the bodhran player started singing. Her name is Heidi Talbot and wow does she have a gorgeous voice! I hadn't heard her before as I've only heard CTL's older recordings, but I guess I'm going to have to get up-to-date.... Heidi also seems to have a solo record I might need to check out.

Update: CTL's new album Woman of the House, released a couple months after this show, is in my opinion their best record to date.

One of the things I've always liked about CTL is that step dancing has been a part of their sound — even on audio-only releases — from the beginning, and although I wasn't in a position to get a good photo, it was true of this show as well.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Shows: Oisre [DIF]

Oisre is a new band which includes Charlene Adzima of the Columbus-based band Aisling (Aisling also played the festival, but I couldn't make their sets). Oisre played on Saturday for at least two hours!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Shows: Whistle Workshop [DIF]

This is the first of a series of posts about the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. They were expecting 85,000 people, and judging by the crowds and great weather I think there were at least that many.

You can look forward to lots of photos and comments on shows by Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers, and the Tannahill Weavers (plus an interview on the subject of whistling in Scottish music), but it will take me a while to write all of that. So I'll start out with the first thing I saw when I entered the festival, which was my whistle teacher giving an introductory level ("introductory" in the "which end do I blow into" sense of the word) seminar on playing the whistle to a standing room only crowd of over 100 people. Brian did a great job keeping the crowd engaged and laughing.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Tunes: Kerrigan's Jig

Some days I can't seem to get a tune right at all, even tunes I've been playing for months. Other days everything comes easily, and sounds great. Being a navel-gazing sort of person, I've spent some time thinking about the "bad days," and I've noticed that I have more of them when I'm learning a new tune.

My working theory at the moment is that the information in my brain about the new tune temporarily "crowds out" information about how to play the tunes I already know. Of course I can't play the new tune very well, either, having just learned it, and so everything sounds bad, even though I've actually learned more than I previously knew.

With practice, I improve on the new tune and also reinforce the skills for playing the "older" tunes. Re-learning the information makes the memory stronger.

The same thing happens when I'm trying to improve my performance of a tune I already know, like working on getting the jig rhythm correct or alternate ways of tonguing (or not) a group of notes. I find that when I've been working on these variations it's harder to play the tune, even without them, as I have to make a conscious effort to play the tune in the "old way."

But playing the tune mindfully is, I think, more important than playing it "correctly." Being able to precisely imitate the intonations and style of players like Mary Bergin and Seamus Egan is not something I aspire to, even though I love listening to their recordings (well, most of them, anyway). What I admire most about their performances is not the finished product per se but rather their ability to play the tune consciously, in the moment.

When I am first learning a tune, I don't play it very well at all. I have to think about every note, so I get the rhythm wrong and make lots of mistakes. Later on, I know the basic pattern of notes, and I can play it from end to end, on time and without playing a wrong note; I tend to start playing it a bit faster. But there's a real danger here; playing the tune can become a mindless exercise of muscles rather than a mindful rendition of the tune.

That brings me to Kerrigan's Jig. Most people know this as the Kesh Jig, but L.E. McCullough, in his Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor, includes a slightly different version which I'm currently practicing, and uses the "Kerrigan's" title. The thing that I like most about this book is that is that he has, for a few of the included tunes, notation and recordings of four different ways of playing the tune.

Now this tune isn't easy to play to begin with. Many people complain about the high notes in the second part of the tune, but I find the last few measures easier than most of the rest of the tune. What throws me more are the complicated changes in fingering, such as going from high D to low B and back to high D again (here's one tip for this) and the repeats that aren't quite repeats. Also, it's more than passingly similar to the Blackthorn Stick, the first dance tune I ever learned; I avoided the Kesh for some time since playing it confused me pretty badly! So I plan to spend some more time getting the basic tune down before trying the variations.

Nevertheless, I chose to learn the tune now not because of its ubiquity but because of its featured place McCullough's book; I do intend to move on to the variations at some point. This (multiple variations of a tune with notation and recordings of each) is something I wish tutorials did more often, mostly because it's harder to find in other places: Non-tutorial CDs might include multiple variations (in repeats), but are usually played very fast and don't come with notation. For a tutorial, as opposed to a tune book, I'd rather have lots of variations of a few tunes than lots of tunes with few variations.

As I noted at the top of this post, however, learning these variations is going to confuse me. As I play, I'll have to deal with the fact that there's more than one way I can play each measure, and make a conscious determination of which I'm going to use. It's going to sound pretty bad at first. But I hope that in the end it will help me retain the mindfulness that I had to practice when I first learned the tune.

Endnote: I wrote that I liked "most of" the recordings by Mary Bergin and Seamus Egan. Actually, I like everything I've heard from Mary, and I think Seamus Egan's work with and without Solas has produced some of my favorite CDs. I'm particularly fond of The Words That Remain. But Egan is less interesting to me the further he gets from Irish traditional music. I found When Juniper Sleeps to be almost unlistenable for me in a "new age lite jazz" kind of way. The Hour Before Dawn was OK, but it isn't Solas in their prime, either. I don't mind non-traditional music — I like the Pogues, the AfroCelts and Loreena McKinnitt, for example — but I've come to believe that traditional-contemporary hybrid music is just a completely different skill than traditional music, and folks who are brilliant at the latter don't necessarily do well at the former. Nevertheless, Egan's best recordings are some of my favorite CDs at the moment, so the great more than outweighs the less impressive in his case!